Each year migrant birds are familiar friends on our shores. But they face real challenges to get here. York bird expert JONO LEADLEY is taking part in an international 'bird race' to raise money to help them

Spring may seem a long way away on these cold, snowy days, but it is actually just around the corner. With the hours of daylight lengthening, birds have started singing and the yellow blooms of lesser celandines have appeared under our hedgerows and in the woods.

It won’t be long before we hear the first chiffchaffs singing and rejoice as the first swallow scythes across a farm field. The arrival of our spring migrant birds herald the warmer months and reinforce our relief at surviving the colder months. But do we ever consider the perils these birds face as they return to our shores from distant lands?

Sadly, besides the natural challenges of weather, inhospitable deserts and seas and the unwelcome attention of predators, they also face the huge impact of hunting. In the Mediterranean region this is a massive issue faced by our migrant birds.

BirdLife International’s research, published as ‘The Killing’, gave evidence for 25 million birds being killed each year in the Mediterranean. This mind-blowing number is simply unsustainable and is one of the reasons species such as turtle doves are rapidly declining towards extinction here in Britain.

The figures really make for a shocking death toll: 2.9 million chaffinches, 1.8 million blackcaps, 1.6 million quail, 1.2 million song thrushes….

When these colossal figures are dismantled, we find that the worst culprits are Egypt, Italy and Syria, although the most intensely hunted places are the islands of Cyprus and Malta – a darker side to these popular holiday destinations.

The vast majority of this hunting is illegal, with roughly half the victims supplying a banned food trade, with the remaining half being killed for ‘sport’ or the illegal cagebird trade. Social media is littered with proud hunters showing off line after line of shot bee-eaters, golden orioles and birds of prey atop the bonnets of their 4x4s. Many of the hunting methods employed are illegal too, with lime sticks (twigs coated in a sticky glue that ensnares passing birds), poisons and tape recordings of bird song to attract more victims.

So, to a conservationist such as myself, what to do about this dreadful situation? Well, this year, I have been fortunate to be invited to join a team of Yorkshire birdwatchers participating in an international bird race, the ‘Champions of the Flyway’.

This race is held in Israel, as part of the Israeli bird festival, and like any other bird race is a competition to see which team can see or hear the most species of birds within a set time frame - in this case, 24 hours. It will be a lot of fun, with teams from across the world competing for the coveted prize of Champions of the Flyway. But the real point is to raise the profile of the wonders of bird migration through the Mediterranean region and crucially to try and put pressure on governments to do more to stop the illegal hunting that is taking place.

Just as importantly, the competing teams raise money. This is donated to BirdLife International who support local NGOs working directly to try and educate future generations of local people to encourage them to step away from hunting, and support local authorities to enforce the law.

This is the fifth Champions of the Flyway race and previous events have helped with work in places such as The Lebanon. This year, funds will go to BirdLife’s partners in Serbia and Croatia where illegal spring hunting of quail and other species is rife.

Our plucky team, the Zeiss Yorkshire Terriers, made up of team captain, professional ornithologist Mark Pearson, Yorkshire Coast Nature’s Richard Baines, renowned wildlife artist Darren Woodhead, and myself, are very unlikely to win – we really are the underdogs! But, we are focussing on winning the other prize – the Guardians of the Flyway – which is awarded to the team that raises the most money. And we are working hard to achieve just that.

Yorkshire also has a poor reputation for illegal persecution of birds, and we are determined to show the world that many of us Yorkshire folk are against that, and want to do our bit to help our beautiful birdlife.

I hope you too can help us help our migrant birds. We have a JustGiving page set up and we are keen to smash our target. We have already attracted the support of binocular manufacturers Zeiss, along with Ark Display Products, North York Moors National Park, Wold Ecology, Indus Experiences and Evoluted, along with York Ornithological Club and many other local natural history groups, and lots of generous individuals. If you would consider a donation that would be fantastic. Every pound helps!

To make a donation to the Zeiss Yorkshire Terriers visit champions-of-the-flyway.com/zeiss-yorkshire-terriers/

The Champions of the Flyway race takes place on Monday March 26. You can follow the Yorkshire Terriers progress on social media using the #COTF18 hashtag, or by following @birdingdad.